Buried treasure - Five important measures of your web content

Web metrics are becoming increasingly important as companies focus on getting a good return on their web investment. Anyone that's looked at a web statistics report, though, realizes that it's easy to become buried in a mountain of information.

This article outlines five of the top measurables for making site content decisions. These items are of special significance because they provide a foundation for understanding how your site is being used.

Page views

The place to start is with page view statistics. Page view statistics give you a high-level idea of what is happening at your site - what people are doing at your site and how busy it is. The quantity and distribution of page views affects everyone involved in developing the site, and also helps determine the way you monitor other important web metrics.

Hit tracking and page view statistics are sometimes criticized, because they can't give you a complete picture of the popularity of your site. Web proxies, shared IP addresses and other realities of the Internet mean that web server logs don't always capture a complete picture of the way people view your web site. However, server log analysis is often the best tool available, and page view statistics should be representative of what people do at your site.

Page view analysis tells you what your customers think is the most important content in your site. Monitor the performance of these pages, because they are the most critical to your customers. Page popularity also helps you prioritize page development, and identify weaknesses in your site's design. You may decide that less popular pages should be featured more prominently in your navigation, or that they can be eliminated. For example, despite the public's interest in privacy, a review of your page views may show that few people look at your site's privacy page.

Visit frequency

From your web statistics, you can also find out the percentage of visitors that return to the site within a day, week or month. This information is important for developing a schedule for updating content. If you want to increase traffic to a particular content area of your site, it needs to be updated more frequently than people visit it. If people visit a page daily, but it's only updated twice a week, they will quickly realize this and visit less often. On the other hand, if it's updated daily, and visitors are coming only weekly, you may be spending unnecessary effort on the content. By comparing visit frequency to your update schedule, you can update content more efficiently.

Page load speed

Web surfers value page load speed very highly, and may hit the back button if a site takes too long to load. Just a few years ago, the average page load time for a business page over a fast connection was around 10 seconds. Now, companies have cut this time down to 2-3 seconds, because they have realized the importance of speed. The best way to measure page speed is by testing it from outside your network. NetIQ and Mercury Interactive have both software and service solutions for performance monitoring.

Speed goals vary significantly according to the type of site you have. Periodically monitor competitive sites so that you'll have an idea of the page load "speed limits" for your type of content. For example, top search sites load in less than half the time of typical business sites. If you find that your most important content is not loading within your time goals, you need to review your content.

It may be that your pages are bloated with extraneous graphics. It may also be that your servers are overloaded, or that there is a bottleneck in the architecture of your applications. Either way, if your servers aren't meeting your time goals at peak times, you're probably not meeting your customer's expectations.

Link analysis

Broken links are an ongoing problem with most large e-business sites. Many programs, along with outside services, offer the ability to monitor broken links. Tracking the number of broken links within a site is a good high-level measure of the technical quality of the site maintenance. Broken link reports should contain a summary of the number of broken links, so that this can be tracked over time. Monitoring this and distributing these reports is usually 90% of the job of getting these problems taken care of.

Search requests

Most companies spend a lot of time and effort making sure that their site is easy to navigate. Unfortunately, many visitors to your site ignore your site navigation and go straight to the search field. Monitor your search requests and use the list of common search requests to improve your site.

Many indexing servers compile live reports, including a list of the most common search requests. Even if your indexing software doesn't provide this, you can usually get the same information from web server logs. Search requests are usually passed back to the server as URL parameters, which can be stored in your web logs.

Focusing your energy on improving the most popular search requests will provide the greatest benefit for your time. Once you know what people are looking for, test out how your search engine performs. Does it give you the right results? Are the top three search results the most relevant pages? If not, then your search needs tuning; you'll need to adjust your search software's settings or modify your pages to improve the search results.

Search requests are also a great way to identify problems with your site's navigation. Providing links from your home page and other high-level pages to the pages that answer your most popular search requests should make finding the most important information at your site easier, and reduce your customers' reliance on your search engine.

There are obviously many other aspects of your site to keep an eye on. These five measures, though, provide a good basis for understanding how your site's content is being used.

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